(Alternate Title: EA is Incompetent, which, unsurprisingly, is already registered as as a username for the Cerberus Network)

After enjoying Mass Effect 1 immensely, I went out and purchased Mass Effect 2.  One initial play session later, here are some of my first thoughts on the game, and how it is to play.

-Not wanting to wait the 15GB download over my less-than-ideal internet connection, I picked this one up on disk.  The install went smoothly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the dialogue archive was one of the largest files.  Activation seems to be serial code on install and disc check thereafter – hardly draconian copy protection.  From what I’ve heard, the digital download copy protection on this one isn’t too bad either.

-Firing up the game, I hit the first snag – EA wanted me to log in to my account to connect to the Cerberus network, download DLC, etc.  Unsurprisingly, my EA account did not log in.  This is unsurprising because my EA account has never logged in properly on the first try to any EA game that required it.  Usually, resetting my password fixes it, but this time, even that doesn’t budge the game.  My credentials log in just fine on EA’s own website, but the exact same credentials will not log in using the game.  As of my first play session, I was not able to log into this part of the game.  Luckily, it is not necessary to play the base game, and so is primarily an inconvenience – were the case otherwise, I would consider that a rather critical flaw.

-The Cerberus Network, as it is, seems to be primarily a news feed, rather than an in-game delivery portal – to actually download any of the DLC, at least as far as I could tell, you are taken to the Bioware Social webpage, outside of the game.  Of course, this site doesn’t synchronize your login well with EA’s site, either, meaning that even getting to a download page for the “included” DLC was a two-hour ordeal including multiple EA accounts and password resets.  The Cerberus Network is hardly a gaming innovation, and is most decidedly not ready for prime time.

-Importing ME1 characters works more or less flawlessly, up to and including my original Shepard’s distinctive mug.  All the other info imports just fine, and having a solid save file gives a decent amount of initial bonuses, including some initial skill points and a decent amount of resources to pick up some of the starting equipment.

-The game starts out mostly with extended cutscenes, but after a while, you are introduced to combat.  As always, I chose to play on “casual” difficulty, to see whether the combat is actually easy on this setting.  Long story short: your mother won’t be beating ME2 anytime soon.

ME2 is no Borderlands, and it wants you to play it more in the style of F.E.A.R., or Rainbow Six Vegas, or (shudder) Gears of War.  That is, combat is mostly all about popping out from behind cover, shooting a guy or two, getting back into cover to let your shields recharge, and doing that until all the bad guys in an area are down.  If, like me, you like charging into the fray, guns blazing, you’ll soon find yourself ducking back out of necessity under a withering barrage of enemy fire.  Played cautiously, it’s more survivable… but slower.

However, that being said, the intensity of combat is increased from ME1.  The enemies are also a bit more aggressive, rather than milling about as in the first game.  Healing is a bit streamlined – like most shooters these days, duck behind cover for a bit, and you’re all better, and medi-gels are exclusively used for reviving your team when they get beat down.  The shield display is much better, and you can tell quite clearly how much is left.  Of course, being a third-person shooter, zoom is limited, and there’s no really solid iron-sights mode for precision attacks – only the sniper rifle has a scope, and only a few classes can actually use it.

All that being said, the difficulty generally isn’t too bad, unless an enemy is allowed to get up close – unless you take immediate action, you’ll usually be cut apart by the time you can react to the enemy’s presence.  Often, your teammates will be able to help with that, but get caught out alone, and you’re in trouble – this is what led to my first “critical mission failure” in one of the earlier missions (and yes, having your character shot to bits is a pretty critical failure).  Luckily, this is somewhat mitigated by being able to save in any non-combat situations, and an autosave feature quick enough to take me back only to the beginning of the battle, instead of earlier on in the level.  This means that even failing a section doesn’t seem, at least at this point, to require significant backtracking.

-It should be noted that there are technically fewer weapons available, but each of the weapons is relatively unique, in that each has its own specific qualities (as opposed to ME1, where everything was just basic variations of stats, but for the most part looked and fired the same).  There are also additional weapons types to use, which makes things feel a bit fresher.  The weapons also pack some punch to them, and they feel less vague than in ME1.  Additionally, upgrades and different weapons are available on a tiered system, and there’s no more nightmarish inventory management that must be completed all the time.  Technically, this makes for less overall variation, but it takes away one of the tedious features of the original.

Of course, not all of the changes are necessarily as good.  Instead of unlimited ammo but with a cooldown and risk of overheating, someone decided that the best way to manage the heat was to create ejectable heat sinks to keep the heat away.  So, no more overheating…  but also no more unlimited ammo.  These weapons, apparently, can’t fire without the heatsink clips, so all weapons have a fairly limited number of shots.  This will mean that you will run out of ammo for your favored weapon in a heated firefight, and will be stuck using a backup weapon.  This change is ridiculous, especially in light of the technology used in the first game, and makes combat a bit more frustrating (on the upside, though, ejecting the heatsinks does look pretty cool).

-Skills are also quite simplified, which is kind of a toss-up: less customization, but an easier-to-use system.  There are also fewer powers available, but those which are are usually a bit more potent than in the original, and certainly more varied.

-Oh, and the minigames.  The original minigame was decent, if a bit frustrating, but the new game has a trio of them.  Two are for hacking locks: one is basically a memory-type game with a countdown timer, the other is a game where you try to find identical images.  Both of them are tolerable, but not particularly fun, and they are at least generally solvable (unlike the pipe-shuffling abomination in the original Bioshock).  However, there’s also no using omnigel to get around them, so you have to do them every time, which can get tedious.  And speaking of tedious…  In the original, to collect resources, all you had to do was go to a planet and hit the “survey” button, and you were done.  Now, all the surveying has to be done by hand, which means scanning your mouse over an entire globe, looking for elusive deposits with a stuttering graph.  While it can be fun for a while, this mechanism has the potential to get tedious quickly (and I’m talking fossil-unearthing in Spectrobes kind of tedious).

Finally, some random gameplay observations:

– All the graphics look good, maybe slightly better than the original, but not by much.
-The new Normandy has a better layout and is a bit more friendly to walk around, and the mapping functions work much better in the “hub” areas (there are no maps in combat zones, only an objective marker, which is generally fine due to the fairly strict linearity of the missions – you’re rarely afforded the opportunity to walk very far off the beaten path).
-Commerce is also easier – the buying interface clearly outlines what each item does, and there’s basically no selling, a side effect of the limited inventory management.
-The codex is back, with way too much information, only this time it’s written with much less attention to grammar, and narrated verbatim – you’d think the guy reading it would kinda catch on, but it doesn’t seem to faze him.
-There’s plenty of plot and dialogue again, and you’ll quickly get tired of reading it all, especially if you try to exhaust all of the conversation options.
-You still can’t bloody jump, the scourge of Bioware games, apparently, since time immemorial.
-I’m not sure if there are grenades any more, besides a grenade launcher, which makes cover combat even more of a pain, although I suppose heavy weapons are supposed to make up for this.  The ammo available for shotguns and sniper rifles is shamefully low, at least at the start.
-Loading times are quite reasonable, with decently animated interstitials.  A few airlock-style doors, but no more slow elevators.

Overall – quite a few improvements, combat is definitely more fluid and exciting, but there are also some things that I miss from the original, and a few gameplay mechanics that frustrate rather than improve gameplay.  So far, so good, and you’ll end up playing far longer than you intend.